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Page last updated at 14:33 GMT, Wednesday, 13 October 2010 15:33 UK
Take flight with hang gliding champion Tony Stephens

Champion hang glider takes flight

"It's exhilarating, I'm like a kid at Christmas time," says hang gliding champion Tony Stephens who currently holds the British Open series title.

The 46-year-old health support worker from Southampton has been hang gliding for 13 years.

If he is not travelling around the country for competitions, he is flying solo in the skies over Hampshire.

His next target is to make the GB team in the sport's world championships in Italy in 2011.

Tony Stephens hang glider
Hang gliders can reach speeds of 75 mph (120 kmph)

Great flights

On a good day, hang gliders can reach heights of 5,000ft (1,500m) at the bottom of the cloud base.

Tony admits that with competitive flying there is not much time to enjoy the views.

He explained: "In the competitions you tend to be focused on getting from A to B which takes away some of the enjoyment, but the joy is in the winning.

"But on a nice free flight, you can spend loads of time taking in the views and taking some fantastic photos."

In and around Hampshire, popular hang gliding spots include East Meon, Combe Gibbet near Newbury, but Tony's favourite site is Harting Down near Petersfield.

Tony Stephens
Tony Stephens took up hang gliding 13 years ago

He explained: "It's the jewel in the crown. It just seems to trigger cumulus clouds and it's just a particularly great flight to fly right along the South Downs."

Tony's gliding career began after he and two friends were playing a computer game which featured a hang glider. The next day they signed up for a lesson at a gliding school in Wiltshire.

However he says its popularity is dipping, compared to paragliding. He explained: "Not that many people getting into it. The difference is it is a lot more convenient to fly and store paragliding equipment."

Despite having a purpose-built shed to store his five-metre-long folded hang glider, and having to cope with equipment which is more awkward to transport and rig, Tony insists: "You get a greater performance and it's also safer - with paragliding gear there is no rigid structure and they are prone to collapsing."

Chasing thermals

As with any form of gliding, the principle is to look for unstable thermal air conditions where warm air is rising, allowing the glider to lift.

Tony Stephens took up hang gliding 13 years ago
Pilots can reach heights of 5,000ft (1,500m)

Pilots are constantly looking out for fluffy white cumulus clouds as indicators of thermals which have formed into clouds.

"You are completely focused and engrossed on what you are doing. When you are flying, you have to keep thing and thinking where your next lift is coming from."

"The views are just amazing and you can closer to nature than you ever would on foot. I've flown 10 metres over a stag at Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset."

Tony has also found himself "sharing a thermal" alongside a flock of 200 griffin vultures while flying in Spain.

He said: "Birds of prey are stunningly beautiful, especially when they are no more than 10ft away and we have eye contact with each other."

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